By Anna Leon,
The dashboard’s brake light had come on about two hours earlier in my black 1997 Nissan Sentra GXE; the electronic construction signs warned of the interstate being reduced to one lane 11 miles ahead, and traffic was already slowing down. I was driving north on I-81 through Virginia. It was almost 5 p.m., and the sun was tingeing all the green mountains around with gold. It was one of those scenes that writers love to write about and anyone can immediately picture in his head. Even after a notoriously glorious afternoon, however, evening must inevitably fall, and I wanted to get home—about three hours away—before it got too dark.
So when the interstate ahead looked like a stationary strand of red Christmas lights, I did the smart thing. I took a detour.
Unfortunately, I was not the only intelligent driver that day. Everything was fine and dandy for about 30 seconds, when I came around a curve and had to stomp on my brakes. My tires sounded like a thousand dying mice. Ahead of me, tractor-trailers sat in an ugly scrawl along the landscape as far as I could see, and they weren’t moving. So I did the smart thing again. I took another detour.
About then was when my GPS started to freak out.
Half-an-hour later, I was driving on Poor Mountain Road, trying not to worry about my GPS saying “Recalculating” every 3.5 seconds and telling me to turn onto shadowy, gravel dead-end roads; and knowing that, if my brakes gave out after I had rounded a slope’s summit, my emergency brake would probably be as effective as sprinkling pixie dust on my car and telling it to fly to Omaha.
About then was when a pack of dogs started to chase my brave little Sentra, and I found that my reliable little GPS had led me down yet another dead-end road.
I turned around. I don’t think I ran over any paws in the process, but it left me a tiny bit traumatized.
After I turned the next corner, I stepped on my brakes again: this time not to keep myself from dying, but because the sight ahead surprised me. I was high in the mountains, far from anything remotely suburban, and ahead of me were more mountains, pristine and uncivilized. It was beautiful. My first sense was of feeling pagan, as if I had just uncovered something sacred, forbidden. My next sense was one of immense privilege. I hadn’t been searching for a sight like this, but here it was anyway, and millions of other people could not see the same thing at that moment.
My five-hour drive turned into an almost eight-hour trek that day. I don’t regret those three hours or that extra gas, though; I would have several fewer stories to tell if I had stayed on the interstate.
I get annoyed with people who say, in slow, thoughtful voices, “All good things come to those who wait.” As a journalist, I’m a huge fan of anything efficient. If something completes a job quickly, or tells the story in just a few words, I’m ready to endorse it. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, life experience will find itself greatly enriched by a hiatus from the highway.